Goodness

Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2019 || Palm/Passion Sunday C || LUKE 19:28-40

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Jesus says these words to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else in the world besides New England, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But if you’ve ever walked a New England beach then you’ve heard the sound of the stones singing – small stones that used to be boulders and aren’t yet sand. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.

Continue reading “Goodness”

The First Word: Affirmation

(Or The Fundamental Goodness of Creation)

Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

Word1AffirmationYou may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.

We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.

(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)

The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.

But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.

Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.

And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.

Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

The Second Word: Invitation >>

Stone Symphonies

(Sermon for March 28, 2010 || Palm Sunday, Year C, RCL || Luke 19:28-40)

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” So says Jesus to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But in the month that I’ve been in Cohasset, I’ve walked on the beach several times, and I’ve heard a certain, special noise that has made these words come alive.

As you know, small stones populate the beaches here, stones that were once boulders and are not yet sand, stones made round and smooth by the ebb and flow of the tide, stones good for skipping on the ocean. Waves break over these stones and cover them with foamy surf. As the tidal forces suck the waves back out to sea, the water runs through air pockets between the round edges of the stones. And as the water vibrates the stones, they cry out. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of all the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.

If we attune our ears and eyes and hearts, we can hear these chords and we can witness all of Creation praising God. This praise happens when God’s creatures fulfill the purposes for which God made them. The sun praises God by shining, the moon by reflecting the sun’s light. The thunder praises God by crashing, the rain by watering the earth. The gazelle praises God by running, the wolf by hunting, the rose by blooming, the bee by pollinating. Each member of the great symphony of Creation praises God in an unique way, and all work in concert to glorify the Creator.

Well, all except for one glaring exception. We humans are a thick lot. On our best days, we ignore the symphony, and on our worst days, we spend our time devising ways to silence Creation’s praise. Down through history, we have slowly but surely forgotten how to read Creation’s score, forgotten that we too have parts to fulfill in God’s orchestra.

We are able to join in praise to God when we remember that God created us to display one fundamental attribute: goodness. God created everything that is, Genesis tells us, and at the end of each creative session, God pronounced the new creation Good (and on the last day, not just Good, but Very Good). So, at the fundamental level of our human nature is goodness, which is a reflection of God’s delight in Creation. The manifestation of that goodness is our praise to God. We embody this praise when we sing and dance, when we laugh and pray, when we love, and most importantly, when we serve.

The trouble appears when we forget that goodness remains at the core of our human nature. Instead, we see all the malignant attributes that attack our goodness and mistake this tumorous growth for what defines us as humans. How often have you heard the following statements explained away by attributing the behavior to human nature:

“He’s just jealous because I won the office pool.” “Well, jealousy is just a part of human nature.”

“She’s so petty: who cares if we wore the same dress today.” “Well, pettiness is just a part of human nature.”

“I can’t believe he lied about where he was last night.” “Well, dishonesty is just a part of human nature.”

We make the worst mistake of our lives when we attribute these negative actions to human nature. Our fundamental nature is Good, and anything else is a perversion of the goodness by which God brought us into being. These perversions of our goodness (also known as “sin”) distort our relationship with God. We start playing our instruments out of tune, thus ruining the symphony of Creation.

But when Jesus rides that donkey’s colt down the Mount of Olives, he takes a step in the process of subverting all our tumorous perversions of human nature. On his way to the cross, which is the epicenter of the perversion the Good, he begins showing that goodness (and all of goodness’s positive emanations) still exist, despite the malignancy eroding the nature of humanity.

First, he tackles the perversion of power. Notice that his parade is rather incongruous. Anyone would expect a king to enter the city on an armored warhorse with weapons-laden legions flanking him. But Jesus rides in humility, on the back of a lowly farm animal. He displays that humility (which is one manifestation of goodness) has more majesty than any imperial power could ever muster.

While Jesus subverts the perversion of power, his disciples tackle the perversion of terror. While fear is sometimes a helpful emotion, terror is not simply “really big fear.” Terror is an extension of power meant to control. But at this moment in the Gospel, the disciples walk directly into the most dangerous situation in their lives unabashedly praising God with joyful voices. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They display courage, another manifestation of goodness, and their courage subverts any attempt by the perversion of terror to control.

The rest of the Gospel plays out in much the same way. Jesus subverts the perversion of greed when he overturns the tables of the moneylenders in the temple. He subverts the perversion of fame when he tells his disciples that he is among them as one who serves. He subverts the perversion of revenge when he stops the retaliation during his arrest and heals the slave’s ear. And in his greatest display of goodness, Jesus defeats the perversion of domination by willingly giving up his life. Jesus brought all our perversions of human nature to the cross and died with them. And in his resurrection, he shows us that these perversions of our good nature have no ultimate power over us.

Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the ability to access the goodness at the core of our human nature. We have the humility and courage necessary to let God excise all the malignancy that perverts our relationships with one another and with the rest of Creation. We have ears to hear the symphony of praise playing all around us, and we have the music within us to add our own harmonies to the orchestra of Creation.

And when we fail, when we once again forget our goodness, we can be silent, we can be still, and we can listen. And then we will hear the stones themselves crying out on our behalf, crying out their praise to God.

Notes

For the Internet versions of my sermons, I usually remove the specifics of place, but for this sermon, I really needed to preserve them for the imagery. If you ever make it up to the Massachusetts coast, listen for the sound I’m talking about.